First days in Varanasi
After a long 2 day journey on the trains I arrived in Varanasi early evening. Thankfully Andreane (from Montreal) was on the same trip as me so I was not alone to handle one of the most intense cities in the world. A recommendation from friends landed us in Elvis Guest House, a cheap haven in the Assi Ghat area with a nice owner named Lala. It’s about 2km from the craziest area known as the Old City. Our first night we were given a tour of the smaller burning ghat and I got to spend my Halloween watching dead bodies burn. Pretty surreal to see. The bodies are wrapped in fabric, placed on a bamboo stretcher and carried through the city by family. They are brought into the water and blessed 5x with the holy Ganges water. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first face I saw. They removed the wrapping and revealed a middle age Indian woman’s face. After the blessing they are carried back up and placed on a pile of wood. Wood is expensive for the families to buy and sometimes they cannot afford enough to burn the whole body which results in leftover limbs sticking out of the fire. The area is very quiet and full of Indian men standing around. Women aren’t allowed because they cry too much. That night as the moon rose it glowed in an orange light. A Halloween I’ll never forget.
The next day we were ready to tackle the Old City. Here hassling is at its worst and the small alleyways make your head spin as if you were lost in a maze. We shopped, checked in on yoga classes, and found the ever-so popular (thanks to the Lonely Planet) Blue Lassi shop where I had a mouthwatering apple lassi that didn’t compare to any of the ones I’ve had in India. Andreane met a nice Nepalese guy who wanted to show us oils and spices. We followed him, listened to his spiel and chose not to buy anything. From there we walked around with him and his friend and after 20mins I got a bad feeling. I realized we were being taken in circles through the city and something wasn’t right. The next thing I know a Westerner who seemed to live here walked by and said “Do not follow those guys.” His eyes said it all and I quickly grabbed Andreane to tell her we need to ditch these two. They didn’t appreciate it and continued to follow us and hound us about what happened. A minute later an Indian asked us if we were with them and gave me a firm head-shake confirming these were not good people. Eventually we got away and I had to sit down I was shaking so bad. I’m not sure if they were just trying to get us to buy silks, drugs, oils, clothes, etc or wanted to do worse. I’d rather not think about it but I’m glad we got out of the situation safely. Many people in this city are just trying to make commission and often lead tourists into scams. My first impression of Varanasi was unpleasant and I was ready to book my ticket out of here.
Knowing this city is many of my friends favorite, I was determined to give it another chance. I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving on a bad note so the next day we tackled the madness again. This time instead of my usual pleasant no thank you, I continued to repeat a firm Neh (Hindi no) to anyone who started to follow us. We left all of our belongings at the guest house except some cash and our passport in order to get in to the Vishwanath Golden Shiva Temple. To enter we can’t have any purse, phone, food, drink, etc, we get frisked, and our passport info must be written down. Built in 1776 and dedicated to Shiva, the gold plated temple is profound for Hindus. We were blessed over and over again and left with our foreheads covered with paint and flowers around our necks. From there we wandered watched more bodies burn, drank more lassis, got henna done, and ended our night with an amazing traditional Varanasi concert. The tablas player was hysterical and entertaining to watch and the flute and sitar were beautiful to hear. It finished with a traditional Kathak dance done by a boy in drag with full makeup.
The next day I ventured on my own, finished xmas shopping for the family, and hung out with a cobbler as he fixed my backpack, renewed my Toms, and stitched up a pair of pants. I bought him a chai and he shared a beedie with me and I sat back and watched the city work. I’ve really gotten to enjoy my time here and though I’m not truly “alone” I’m happy I chose to head North as the rest of the gang went South. Andreane and I moved guest houses to a place closer to the Old City and have a bonded with a great group of people. I stayed up listening to a few Isarelis and a English guy jam. I had no idea this city was so musical and I’m glad I gave myself a week here instead of the three days I planned. Still need to post on Happy Hampi and will try to do better on sharing my sad-to-say last month in India.